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NRN 50: Custom content

Operators succeed when giving consumers exactly what they want

When Bill Dover started working in the restaurant industry close to 50 years ago, Burger King’s “Have It Your Way” campaign hadn’t launched yet. And fast food wasn’t always so fast.

Back in the day, orders were handwritten. So holding pickles, lettuce and adding extra bacon was still a hassle, said Dover, a consultant and director of Toronto-based Xela Enterprises, which has 135 quick-service restaurants in North and South America.

But with new point-of-sale systems, servers can now touch a screen and within a couple of seconds order exactly what guests request while the system correctly adjusts inventory, provides nutritional information and recalculates bills, according to Dover. The newest POS, if loaded properly, can “deduct two slices of tomato from inventory,” he said.

“It sounds elementary, but if you think about it, there is a dramatic impact to it,” Dover said.

Especially in a world where consumer control over entertainment experiences is becoming commonplace. Think TiVo and On Demand or 24-hour shopping on the Internet. Consumers are increasingly used to getting what they want when they want it.

Efficient systems have helped to propel the growth of many operations by allowing them to accommodate special orders without a problem. And because of that ease, some successful chains, such as Starbucks, have built their reputations partly on the concept of customization.

“Starbucks is known as a destination where people can get their favorite beverage handcrafted just the way they like it,” said Julie Felss Masino, vice president global beverage at the 40-year-old coffeehouse chain, which is based in Seattle.

This spring Starbucks went a step further with additional blended beverage options at its nearly 6,800 U.S. company-operated stores. The new However-You-Want-It Frappuccino beverage allows customers to personalize their Frappuccino by choosing a type of milk and the intensity of coffee, Masino said.

“With thousands of ways to customize your beverage at Starbucks, we’ve always encouraged customers to make their drink perfectly to their liking through customization,” she said.

From the start, Starbucks’ baristas learned to handle special orders, and the Frappuccino options were rolled out with additional “training sessions, ensuring the customer wait time is not impacted,” Masino said. At the same time, all company-operated Starbucks stores received new “state-of-the-art blenders, which are quieter and more efficient,” she added.

Training servers to be able to discuss available options is the first step toward creating a dialogue between restaurants and guests, said David Sonzogni, director of food and beverage at GameWorks, an eight-unit chain of bar and game venues based in Chicago. Sonzogni also encourages kitchen staffers to communicate with servers requesting special orders.

But at GameWorks only about 2 percent of guests ask for dish changes, Sonzogni said. And most of those requests are for the removal of ingredients, such as garnishes from sandwiches — which is easy, as most dishes are prepared to order.

Sonzogni attributes the small number of special orders to “understanding your customer base and having a proper menu that covers all the angles.” He noted that GameWorks offers customers “a broad spectrum to choose from,” which ranges from healthful to indulgent dishes.

For unfamiliar new items, such as the brioche bun now served with burgers, Sonzogni offers guests samples and provides alternative breads to those who prefer something else.

Operators “who are flexible are the most successful,” he said, adding that staffers need to remember who ultimately pays their salaries. “Customers make paydays possible.”

“Everything is customizable” at Papa Murphy’s International, a take-and-bake pizza concept with 1,200 locations, said vice president of product development Carron Harris. The chain has allowed consumers to personalize pizzas for 30 years, she added.

“They watch us make it in front of their eyes,” Harris said. As they watch their pies being assembled, Papa Murphy’s customers may request such options as more or less sauce, a quarter of a pie with pepperoni, or a pink sauce, which is equal parts pizza sauce and creamy garlic sauce.

And even though there’s no gluten-free option at the pizza chain, operators may provide the toppings for guests to bake at home with their own dough. Harris said she would offer dough for gluten-intolerant customers if she could, but there are no freezers in which to store the alternative dough at units.

“Other than not having an ingredient that people want,” Harris explained, “there’s really nothing that we can’t do. It’s not like a production facility.”

Pizza topping options include mushroom, zucchini, feta and marinated artichokes, one of the slower sellers. But since the hearts are shelf stable, even lower-volume stores can offer them.

And more options mean more sales, Harris said.

“Everything consumers are telling us is: They want choice,” she said, adding that by offering a myriad of options, “you can build business.”

At the end of the day, “if you don’t give [customers] what they want, they’ll go someplace else,” Dover said. “There are so many other choices.”

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